The Heart of Worship, No Brains Allowed!

I was nervous, but I didn’t know why. Two of my dear friends were leading worship for the IV Grad Winter Retreat. The one where PhD students from the bay area get together once a year around Valentine’s Day.  So, what does it feel like to worship God with people getting PhD’s? We’ll often it feels like worshipping with people who are passionate about music, sometimes it feels like worshipping with people who just want to sound good for the things that need to happen when Christians gather, and rarely has it ever felt like worshipping with people, passionately in love with God.

Now, I don’t doubt that these people love God, they just don’t seem like they are “in love” with God…haha. Though, from the bandstand this year, I could see it on the faces of a few. As grad students, we struggle a lot with being “good enough.” So, I wonder: How would we worship if we really believed that God’s opinion was the only one that mattered? We’d probably be a lot less hard on ourselves and a lot more joyful and free.

I blogged about last year’s retreat (2010) here and here. I have a recap of 2009 that I wrote up for Janet and Peter at UCSC, written on 2/17/09:

My name is Sherol Chen and I’ve been going to Janet and Peter’s group since I got here at UCSC in 2007.  It was my first Christian Community as I started life here on the west coast.  This past valentines weekend, I went on a retreat with graduate students from Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Santa Cruz.  From UC Santa Cruz, we had seven people go.  It was an amazing time as we fellowshipped with not just brothers and sisters, but neighboring colleagues and scholars.  There were lasting impressions made on all sides.  In particular, one night, all the UCSC students and some of the Stanford students had an impromptu prayer and worship session.  We built some truly lasting relationships that night.   More than anything, it was quite amazing to see my brothers Zack and Derek there.   Zack is a relatively new Christian, seeking out community.  Derek is searching and investigating what it means to follow Jesus.  This weekend really impacted them greatly, and I feel it is the greatest encouragement for me to see people find and grow in Christ right before my eyes. (2/17/09)

Did you see that underlined part? 2 years ago was the advent of our jam session series. There’s been 5 all together in the last two years.

  • 3 of them were at the last three winter retreats
  • 1 was the big one at Stanford in October
  • plus this mini one that we had prior to this last retreat

Now, I’ve never formally done caucasian-middle-upper-class worship music with people who knew what they were doing, but somehow I got put on the roster. Under the “what you do” category, I put things along the lines of:

vocal (harmony) / flute / sax / drum set / djembe / vibraphone / keys / ambient sounds / rap / jazz tambourine / nintendo ds

I ended up doing harmonies, flute, sax, tambourine, and, my favorite, intercession. One week prior, Mark (Berkeley), Ethan (Stanford), and I (UCSC), along with Tracy’s (UCSC) husband and father ran through some tunes at Tracy’s house. Mark and Ethan both have their PhD’s and Tracy is near the end of hers. I guess that makes me the academic baby there.

Both Ethan and Mark, though at different times, expressed that this meeting may not be necessary. I, on the other hand, really felt it was important to meet, worship, and, most importantly, pray. I dream of my PhD friends worshipping with their whole hearts, joyful and unafraid. We prayed along those lines, because, honestly, when we partner with God through prayer, things happen beyond our greatest imaginations.

Additionally, I wanted to know we could “jam” on-the-spot, and, really, I wanted to know I could do this (since I also struggle with wanting to be “good enough). This is important, I thought, because I wanted some leverage in trying to get people to do a “jam session” as we’d done in the past two years. Here’s the email I sent the other worshippers:

1) it’s been this informal tradition (for the last two years) to do an “off-the-sched” jam session saturday night (with prayer and music). This will be an opportunity to connect with other musicians and play more of the songs that we want to play, but didn’t make it into a set.

Some of us jammed on this past saturday and we instantly gelled. We could’ve led worship that night (haha, God is good). So, we’ve proven we can jam on-the-spot. It was pretty amazing how we could instantly connect musically when none of us really played before with each other. Mark (from Berkeley) said like 3 times, “Wow, you guys are so easy to play with.”

2) We should do a choir song. I know there are singers from my school that were too timid to sign up for worship, and looking at the list, there are a lot of vocalists. Also, at the big jam session at Stanford this past October, I recall a lot of the Berkeley students being really great a capella singers..

I’m very confident I could pull together a choir with one rehearsal. All you need is a few people who can do harmonies.

Mark suggested doing Joyful Joyful, sister act That’s a song that everyone knows:

I’d also suggest a song that’s easy and no one knows, like this one:

I’m open to any suggestions 😛

So, who wants to be Lauren Hill?

Haha, just giving everyone a heads up for things that may emerge this weekend. Expect fun and awesome things!

What a privilege it is to be able to worship God with you all.

I mentioned that I was going to print out flyers for the retreat “off-the-sched” jam session. I’m told, “that’s not necessary.” I asked if I could play ambient sounds from my laptop and Nintendo DS, and I’m told, “it’s a free country.” Apparently, it’s not that free of a country, because gospel music doesn’t fly with grad students. When I asked whether I could pick songs for the retreat, I was told:

you can pick, but adoption dependent upon whether most people would know it…


In terms of gospel stuff, it’s great with the IV crowd if you want to hear crickets.

Crickets, crickets, crickets, that figure of speech would be on my mind the whole two weeks prior to the retreat. People shouldn’t be confined to what “feels” comfortable, but it also makes sense that introducing new songs is more challenging at a retreat. I mean, where is the faith in being comfortable and familiar? It’s when we aren’t sure that we are capable and uncertain of the outcomes when we exercise the most faith. It’s in those times that we can’t take the credit, because we couldn’t have done it on our own. Too often, us scholars stick to what we know, b/c we’ve gotten so used to being used to things.

To me, it just seemed like (1) a leader had to be willing to do the song and (2) it had to be one that most people would know. Of all things, I figured that gospel music didn’t fly b/c people getting PhD’s in the bay area didn’t listen to Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker. Out of honor for those in leadership and with more worship experience, I didn’t push it THAT much.

Now, I really would rather not believe that gospel music doesn’t work at this retreat because the music is culturally too “black.” That’s not a good way to say it, but that actually IS the reason why we couldn’t do gospel music. I don’t even remember the last time I met a white or asian person who knew of Hezekiah Walker. I take that back… I’ve met 3 South Koreans (in the last 3 months) who had Hezekiah Walker on their smart phones or someone similar. It’s a bit like how Japanese people are really into Jazz.

Honestly, I don’t get why there is “white” worship music and “black” worship music in such exclusive ways. I mean, often, I’ll hear the Chris Tomlin standards at any church, black or white, but I never hear gospel music at white or asian churches, unless it’s some novelty thing. What sucks is that people don’t know what they’re missing out on. Someone explain to me why people only want to stick with what they know, and how this is a good attitude to have towards life.

Do I think that I’m better, more enlightened, less mundane than everyone else, b/c I’m so cross-cultural? If anything, I am like this b/c of my fitting-in deficiency that I’ve had since birth. I need to take some social-Ritalin, and maybe some honey to subdue all my bitterness… I’m joking, but seriously, stop being the “normal police” all the time and maybe I’d stay at your church. What is this “normal police?” Here’s an instance of the normal police, haha.

Hi All,

I’ve been working on many aspects of the conference and just got a look at your googledoc tonight.

Due to several factors – speaker emphasis being one – I am making a switch of which team goes when, plus a content decision. I am going to ask Mark & team to go Saturday, and ask Michael to lead us for Sunday worship.

Also, I hope I am not stepping on toes (too hard), but the Sister Act number won’t fit well for Sunday, so I’m asking y’all to delete that. Glad to take any questions.

Coordinating across the Bay is always a little tricky, and I ask for everyone to understand. Thank you for your service – it is as important a part of the weekend as any other, maybe more. I pray for you all, daily.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes being excessively tactful feels indirectly controlling. I’m ok with controlling, b/c that’s part of what happens when someone has authority. I’m quite a bit less ok with the indirect part, b/c on the other hand, he could’ve just said, “the Sister Act version of Joyful Joyful is too black for a retreat that has so few black people, but you can do the white version as long as you stay true to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.” Perhaps I’m being facetious (or hyperbolic), but this would simply be the opposite extreme of the message’s excessive tactfulness, lol. Notice how the Sister Act song is not appropriate for Sunday after the set was switched to Saturday.

This is the problem with the normal police being excessively tactful: it doesn’t communicate what the actual problem is. Why can’t people just say what the problem is? Well, because they are scared. Look, I’m not trying to upset authority, but if I’m to find a solution and someone gives me the aforementioned constraints, then I’d just say: “well, why can’t we do it, if we’re not going to be playing on Sunday, since you just switched us?”

Then they’d say, “well, it’s not appropriate for the whole retreat.” Then I’d say, “oh, what if we just did the Ode to Joy version?” What are they going to say?… No? I’ll wait for someone to give me a good reason why the poem, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” is inappropriate for worship before I’ll believe that they would’ve vetoed the song, had it not said “Sister Act” in parens.

So, if they say “YES!” that song, as long as it isn’t done like Sister Act, is ok, they get into this uncomfortable conflict of culture and race, and if there is one thing that the normal police does not like, it’s being uncomfortable…haha.

Look, I didn’t pick the song, but I did encourage it once it was picked, since it’s such a popular song. I give the leaders the benefit of the doubt, b/c if they did see the video clip from the movie, the song isn’t appropriate for worship. We wouldn’t have tried to pull off the original song with complete accuracy, just the feel of the parts that everyone knows. If you remember, the initial constraint was that we only pick songs that people knew (and EVERYONE knows Joyful Joyful!). To me, it originally sounded like we wouldn’t be able to do gospel, b/c no one there knows any of the songs. Instead, the condition that we can’t do gospel, b/c people are more comfortable with white worship music is an entirely different issue. Are you following my logic here?

Really, the only thing that bugs me is that someone didn’t just say, “hey, I hope you’re not trying to replicate the original Sister Act song, it’s too complicated (or it’s too black), why not keep it more like the original song.” The whole vagueness and indirect justification seems so counter-intellectual and manipulative. “Oh, but he said he was glad to take any questions.” Look, I’ve gone down that road before (it involved a toaster and some figures of authority, and I’ll have to tell that story another time), but if I had asked all the appropriate questions I would’ve come off as some smart-ass, and lost credibility with the leaders. Instead, I’m going to write a blog post about it to, both, witness to and entertain my Atheist friends.

I’d also say it is a slight bit tricksy to leverage the speaker as a reason for why things need to change. It takes the pressure off of the person asking, but the person asking has the authority to change things, so why be so indirect about it? Also, the speaker didn’t get the memo about there not being gospel music allowed, b/c she busted out and lead “This Little Light of Mine” (and I got to play my Jazz tambourine). Not to mention, she also sang a song from the original Sister Act.

In any case, I’m glad this happened, and I totally don’t hold any grudges or misgivings against the anyone (well, maybe some misgivings). Anyhow, I’m really just addressing the issue (not the people) from being part of a culture where it makes the most sense to be so tactful that you are actually indirectly manipulating people. Anecdotally, I now regularly use this Sister Act story to give people some idea of what it’s like to worship with eggheads.

Right after our mini jam session, that night, my friend Danielle sends me this:

Ok so on Saturday nights at have a young adult service where we worship for like an hour and a half – two hrs it depending on how the Spirits moving and then we have a message. The band is so ridiculously anointed. During worship you’ve got people painting, dancing off to the side etc just free worship.

So last night the msg was on the seemingly contradictory fact that at are the righteousness of God in Christ but we are also supposed to be poor in spirit. And the pastor was talking about how he had gotten to a place where he was like God I know everyone needs u but I Want u 2. And there came a point where sin slowly began to seep its way in to his life and when he came before God He was like don’t u ever forget how much u NEED me. When we forget our need for God pride comedy in and opens up the door for the enemy.

So after the msg the band played and the altar was opened up for those who just wanted to come before God and confess their need of Him. Sherol church starts at 630, I got there at 7, we didn’t get out of there till almost 1:00 but it felt like only an hour had passed. The band couldn’t stop playing. The Spirit came upon them and they were just free styling. One of the pastors came up like 8 different times to close out, but couldn’t. The glory of God just filled the room and there was just the feeling of peace, love, rest, and contentment.

People were getting different visions. One girl was praying and she saw Jesus sit beside her and pray with her and felt Him run her back, and she said is this for me or everybody and He said everybody and she saw Him come and sit next to each person at the altar and rub their back.

For 2 or 3 hrs, just the keyboardist and 1 guitarist were playing and some of the band and other people started to hear angels singing.

There were other visions too but the room was filled with such peace and contentment. We were all like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet soaking in His presence.

It was amazing.

I sent to Mark and Ethan, saying:

Read This!!!…. i dont know if u did, but i want you to read it, b/c THIS is possible… when this happens, you know people are forever changed in an instant….!!!

this is gonna happen during the retreat!!!!!…. I believe it!

Did it happen? Well, I’ll have to write more about that in another post. Let’s just say we had the best time worshipping ever. I credit much of it to our pre-game prayers from the jam session, a week prior. Overall, friendships were made and lives were changed.  The take away from all this is that our prayers make what seems impossible, possible. We pray when our brains can’t fathom what our hearts’ desire.

This is just the beginning.

4 thoughts on “The Heart of Worship, No Brains Allowed!

  1. I will say, as a stone cold atheist, I do miss the feeling of worshipfulness. It can be found… I can find it sometimes, and music is a great place to look. This feeling that there is something deep and orderly and meaningful about the universe and our experience of it. That something in our own minds, even if it’s just the really complicated shape of our neurons and hormones… can feel totally amazing.

    Even better if other sentients are involved and mutual recognition of the shared event makes better in the sharing.

    But a lot of the “worship” I have seen in churches doesn’t get there. It ends up saccharine, and empty. I can feel the difference. Deeply nutritional “worship” that also feels true to me is rare- but I’m sure that even without the existence of God, it’s out there.

    1. Shane, you gotta get this audio book… Blue Like Jazz… I hate it b/c it’s a book on Jazz and Faith… Where the guy says almost NOTHING about Jazz. I mean, he’s reverent, don’t get me wrong… but I say that for 2 reasons:

      (1) Blue Like Jazz is a good book… Get the audio, unabridged version.

      (2) Jazz music is the most inspiring music I’ve ever had the privilege to play….. If not for jazz, i might have given up on humans a long time ago… haha.

      FInally, Churches suck… there, i said it!

      1. I have a strange relationship with Jazz. I don’t genuinely like it in most of its forms. Big bands sound pretty cool, but I like most of my music more symphonic and melodic.

        That said:

        1- The Real Group is probably one of the best a cappella groups in the whole world, their blend is just transcendent. About 70% of their repertoire is jazz classics, and they do them so well I can’t help but like it. I’d like, I don’t know, polka if they did it.

        2- _I myself_ am at least somewhat vocally trained in Jazz. I did a master class week at the Phil Mattson Workshop in Iowa. I have a certificate saying I’m like, jazz certified vocal bass and everything.

        Real Group-

        So good they sound damn fine even through YouTube.

        I’ll add the link to Blue Like Jazz in my Notes.

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